x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

For a tasty twist on food, turn to your spice jars

Like the collection of perfumes on your dresser, the contents of your spice cabinet will remind others of you – provided you’re not afraid to play around with what you’ve got.

In a world of uncertainty, I find unexpected comfort in a sure thing such as the sugary draught of vanilla, batter and grease that greets me at Dunkin’ Donuts. I don’t want a doughnut, but I do like to imagine thousands of calibrated golden crullers bobbing in unison around the world to the same universal language of the fryer’s hiss, bubble and pop. Every doughnut in Boston will smell exactly like the last doughnut made in Dubai, and every now and then that legacy of sameness is enough to settle my anxiety and give me secret hope.

Our personal lives offer few formulas so easily replicated. Last week’s batch of “ranch-ish” dressing was a treat on a salad served with chicken club sandwiches, but when pressed for a recipe, all I could offer were some tips and a shrug. I had taken crème fraîche, mayonnaise, garlic, shallots and some green herbs that needed using – tarragon, coriander and chives – and whisked them all together with olive oil, fresh lime juice and good white balsamic vinegar, then seasoned with salt, sugar, cracked white pepper and several shakes of onion powder. I didn’t write the quantities down; I never do. 

Rich and herby with a pastoral Midwestern dairy spirit, it’s the total opposite of the tart, bracing Mediterranean salad dressings I grew up with and love: lemon, pomegranate molasses, olive oil and salt, so perfect with juicy tomatoes, sweet onions, cucumbers and fried sumac-dusted bread.

My spice cabinet sees a lot of action. Along with salt and olive oil, it’s part of what I call my Arsenal of Freedom, channelling an obsession so intensely nerdy it can only be described with a reference to Star Trek. Like the collection of perfumes on your dresser, the contents of your spice cabinet will remind others of you – provided you’re not afraid to play around with what you’ve got.

Unlike a Dunkin’ Donuts cruller, Chanel No 5 will not smell the same on every woman. Perfume is merely one part of the dialogue between scent and skin and sensory pleasure. It can be a subtle and intricate thing. Cinnamon and oregano do not perform the same way each time. Your cinnamon, owing to its source, age and the chemistry of the interaction, will behave differently from my cinnamon – even if you’re using the very same Vietnamese cinnamon (my preference, by far).

A friend who’s a lifelong vegetarian spent months praising a supposedly addictive seasoning-salt blend he had grown up with and finally offered me half an avocado heavily showered with the stuff. With 40 ingredients, it tasted like miscellaneous sweepings from the back of a spice drawer.

The freshness of dried herb and spice blends is important, especially because after everything else fades, cumin lingers like a noxious weed fermenting in the armpit of the earth.

In Asia, Maggi Seasoning is a savoury all-purpose flavour booster that’s widely used. But I prefer a more direct route to the pleasure centres in my brain and leave MSG and other premixed seasoning blends to the professionals. Last week, I wrote about za’atar; afterwards it occurred to me that it’s the only seasoning blend I own. Even as a dedicated minimalist, my small collection of spices and seasonings are probably the reason I’m incapable of making the same thing twice.

Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico 

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